Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are a big deal right now — especially for gamers. But the use of blended reality and powerful virtual reality processing software are coming to the big screen — and soon. Extended reality (XR), the new catch-all term for everything from VR and AR, is the next big thing in entertainment. But what does that mean for movies and television screenwriters? How do you write a screenplay for an entirely new style and format of filmmaking? Learn how to write an XR script, how extended reality screenplays will change movies forever, and other top tips for screenwriters that want to navigate this new and exciting screenwriting style.
What is Extended Reality (XR)? The difference between VR and AR
In the first-ever episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano famously complained that he felt his own line of work – organized crime – is coming to an end. He says, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor”. The good news for screenwriters is that now is the ground floor for XR screenplays. It simply hasn’t been around long enough for many writers to establish themselves as experts, and there are still plenty of opportunities for entry into the field.
What is XR?
“XR” is short for “extended reality”, which is a composite of virtual reality and augmented reality. The key word here is “composite.” XR is a blending of the two technologies, and that fusion leads to an interesting mix of capabilities and viewing options.
What is VR?
The difference between VR and AR is how viewers interact with the artificial images they see. VR is an immersive three-dimensional environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment. But you usually need a helmet, special glasses or heavy goggles, and gloves or toggles fitted with sensors. In effect, virtual reality is a completely artificial world.
What is AR?
By contrast, augmented reality is a superimposed layer or image that users can see when they look at the real world. AR is like a stained glass window on reality. It’s an addition to what you normally see, not a simulated reality. And for a lot of AR, all you need is your phone (the smartphone camera displays the AR image on the screen).
An easy way to explain the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality is to show how a living, breathing dinosaur can be created in both formats. In VR, you feel as if you are in the dinosaurs’ world. You’re transported back in time to the Jurassic. In AR, dinosaurs can walk down Broadway, stepping over cars and bumping into buildings, seemingly as real as the other organisms and objects in that world. That is why the term “extended reality”, or “XR” for short, is so important. Because it encompasses both of these types of reality-bending artistic creation. And while XR isn’t as popular as pure VR or AR right now, XR screenplays are definitely on the horizon.
How can you watch extended reality today?
The easiest way to experience XR is with a headset. And while VR headsets aren’t always the most comfortable viewing experience (for some people), they’re getting lighter and more wearable every year. XR software is also improving to reduce unpleasant side-effects that many people experience in VR. In addition to improvements in the headsets themselves, there is also the industry-wide hope – even expectation – that within the next few years XR technology can be incorporated not simply within headsets, which are obviously heavy and bulky to wear and therefore more likely to cause physical discomfort, but within “eye-wear”, i.e. spectacles or even specialist contact lenses.
Qualcomm, Apple, Snapchat, Google, and Facebook are all prime investors and innovators in the XR space. One of these companies is sure to perfect the next widely adopted wearable VR/XR glasses. And when they do, the role of XR in movies and tv will explode.
XR is coming to long and short-form storytelling. Here’s how to write an extended reality screenplay.
How to watch extended reality (XR) movies
The best way to learn how to write an XR script is to watch XR movies and tv shows. Pay special attention to what sets them apart from traditional cinema or television. A great place to start is, The Waiting Room, a short film by the BAFTA-winning writer-director Victoria Mapplebeck.
The Waiting Room is the autobiographical story of “a single mum fighting cancer” that was commissioned as a documentary by The Guardian newspaper and it exists in two very different formats.
Mapplebeck converted the traditional film into an immersive VR version. And the differences between the two films is striking. Mapplebeck says, “Working with 3D artists, I bought to life the medical imaging I’d collected throughout treatment.” Watch the trailer and see for yourself:
There are a number of great documentaries about cancer and cancer patients. But until I watched The Waiting Room in VR I’d never really experienced what cancer does to the body. This film literally takes you inside the patient’s body and shows you how cancer-cells grow and mutate. It’s a powerful storytelling technique that literally puts the viewer into the narrative. Picture a remake of the sci-fi classic, Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which a team of scientists is shrunk and then sent into a patient’s body to carry out life-saving brain surgery, but with infinitely better (i.e. infinitely more realistic) effects.
Best beginner courses in extended reality and filmmaking
The best way to learn about the features and possibilities of XR, VR, and AR is to take a class. I attended a beginner extended reality course last year at Britain’s National Centre for Immersive Storytelling, which is partnered with the National Film and Television School. The best part about the class is that it’s specifically seeking storytellers in more traditional fields, like film and television. They want to expose writers to the extraordinary world of XR. And I can say, once you see what’s possible, you’ll get just as excited as I am.
In Britain, the National Centre for Immersive Storytelling runs introductory courses on and offline. For the moment, it remains the only such national center for immersive or XR storytelling in the world, but it won’t be that way for long. Udemy also offers an introductory course to VR for screenwriters.
Extended reality screenplays: Sample ideas
XR screenplay: The Freezer
The first XR script is a short film called, The Freezer. Based on the true story of a drunk student who gets stuck in a huge, walk-in freezer in his dormitory/hall of residence. This film is all about his desperate need to escape or face a slow, cold death.
In its original format, The Freezer shows a man as he began to freeze to death. However, when you develop this script with XR companies (as I am doing right now!), you get to reimagine and reconfiguring the entire story. You can bring the viewer into the freezer so that they experience every element as he (and they) freezes together.
Extended reality screenplay: Synaesthesia
I have always wanted to writing a script called Synaesthesia. It would be bout the remarkable neurological condition of that name. If you’re unfamiliar, synaesthesia is when different senses seem to merge — you see sounds or hear colors. Many people believe that some of the greatest musicians who ever lived — from Bach to John Lennon — may have had synaesthesia.
Lennon famously told George Martin during the recording of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band (1967) that he wanted a particular song (“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” or “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) to “sound like an orange”.
With extended reality, you can write a script in which the viewer experiences synaesthesia just like the protagonist. You can give them at least a fleeting glimpse of what it is like to experience such sense-melding or blending. I have no doubt that this kind of storytelling experience will drive entertainment in the (very near) future.
How to write for extended reality
It’s easy to get lost in all the cooler aspects of extended reality. It really is an amazing new medium. But it’s important for writers to take ownership of this incredible new tool and use it for more than just cool visual effects. At the start of the silent film era, movies were simply gimmicks that didn’t compare to the elevated entertainment at the time (like opera). But within a few short years, “talkies” pushed technological and storytelling boundaries to become the dominant form of media for nearly a century.
We are at a similar crossroads with XR. Right now, many people see VR and AR as a way to make video games more realistic. And they are. But XR-driven storytelling can open up exciting new vistas for audiences and creators alike. Immerse yourself in the possibilities and unique visions you can create for audiences and embrace the untapped potential of XR for your next script.
There is little doubt that extended reality is going to be part of how we communicate over the coming decade. Screenwriters need to be part of that conversation.